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David Thomson on Films: ‘The Artist’ Was Awful—and Other Reasons I’m Not Watching the Oscars

Since first seeing The Artist, I believed it was going to win Best Picture. It’s “different” without being challenging or difficult or worrying. The Artist could have been designed by a computer to appeal to anyone who has a sense of nostalgia for movie history. (And 54 percent of Academy voters are over sixty). It is also a light, entertaining picture in which froth passes for energy, and pat ironies are made to seem intelligent. I enjoyed it, until the moment I guessed how close it was to getting Best Picture. It is not a Best Picture—but the Academy has voted for such polite duds time and again.

Some of the other contestants in that category are lucky to be there. They should be ashamed to occupy places that might have been filled by two of the best movies of the year: the Iranian film A Separation and Margin Call, the debut feature film by writer-director J.C. Chandor. It is the best movie—fact or fiction—we have seen yet about the links between our ongoing financial crisis and human nature and the vacuum of politics in America, but it was clearly handicapped in Oscar terms by being both challenging and a serious source of anxiety. In many years I would have given it Best Picture, but for 2011 that nod has to go to A Separationwhich is so compelling it justifies the hope that extraordinary, gripping and entertaining movies can be made for small change.

It’s my instinct that the sentiment for The Artist will extend to its director Michel Hazanavicius, and its lead actor Jean Dujardin. So be it. A moment of glory will thus fall on two men who, I suspect, are unlikely to make a good film again. George Clooney is Dujardin’s closest rival, because he is so popular and powerful in Hollywood, and because the strenuous advertising for his film The Descendants has lately concentrated on soulful head-shots that make him look full of feeling and minus his normal smirk. It’s crazy that Michael Fassbender was not nominated for something (preferably Jane Eyre), and Brad Pitt should be nominated for The Tree of Life, not Moneyball. Meanwhile Kevin Spacey was as good as he has ever been in Margin Call—but he is not nominated.

In the best actress category, I fear that the habit of respect and orthodoxy may elect Meryl Streep for her Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady, even though she is hopelessly off in her bravura attempt at impersonation in this feeble and spineless film. Michelle Williams as Marilyn Monroe is the deserving winner, and a far subtler piece of celebrity reinvention. The category as a whole should have included Mia Wasikowska in Jane Eyre and Keira Knightley in A Dangerous Method (the latter in defiance of many hostile reviews). 

As supporting actor, Christopher Plummer seems to be a certainty in Beginners, and the Academy surely feels that this smooth veteran should have his day. I would give the prize to Kenneth Branagh’s Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn, and I regret the omission of several fine performances—Patton Oswalt in Young Adult, Paul Bettany in Margin Call, all the men in A Separation, Eddie Redmayne as the “me” in My Week with Marilyn, Bryan Cranston in Drive, and the kids in The Tree of Life.

There is a severe injustice at work in the supporting actress category: It shows no understanding of acting that Shailene Woodley is omitted as the teenage daughter in The Descendants. She is the heart and turning point of that overrated film, and she will be heard from again. Equally, Carey Mulligan should have been there for Drive and Christine Bottomley for The Arbor (a film seen by far too few people). Of those who are nominated, I suspect the prize will go to either Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids or Octavia Spencer in The Help—I’ll bet on the latter because I suspect the Academy wants to honor that weirdly complacent film with something for “noble intentions.” 

A Separation will win for best foreign picture, though I have already written about the folly and arrogance of a best “foreign” picture attitude in this world and the forlorn implication that America still does these things best. I hope that the same film will win an Oscar for its writer-director, Asghar Farhadi, in the best original screenplay category. No picture from last year advanced with the same force, clarity and necessity, and those virtues began in the script. The nominees for adapted screenplay are all in the area of insanity to my mind: The script for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy exists not as a plausible or appealing mystery—it is willfully obscure and empty at its core. The process of adaptation in My Week with Marilyn (by Adrian Hodges) was far more intricate and ambitious, while the adaptation of the plays of Andrea Dunbar in The Arbor (by Clio Barnard) came from a different scheme of intelligence. In addition, Christopher Hampton’s screen adaptation of his own play was vital to A Dangerous Method. Alas, none of the three were nominated.

There are all the other awards, of course, if anyone cares beyond the nominees themselves. To take but one example: There are two contenders for best song—“Man or Muppet” from The Muppets and “Real in Rio” from Rio. Remember that in 1943, there were ten nominees and they included Cole Porter’s “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” from Something to Shout About, Harold Arlen’s and Johnny Mercer’s “Black Magic” from Star Spangled Banner, and Harry Warren’s and Mack Gordon’s “You’ll Never Know” from Hello, Frisco, Hello. We should drop that Oscar until movie songs are written again.

There will be an honorary Oscar for Douglas Trumbull, a pioneer of special effects from 2001 to Blade Runner, and the director of Silent Running. But earlier on there was an honorary Oscar given to Oprah Winfrey. Billy Crystal will be the host, and I expect he’ll be a cheeky treat, with silent film jokes. But as I read over the categories for this year, I contemplate doing something I have never done—I may not watch the show. I don’t care who wins. And after all, the show will clash with the fifth episode of Luck.

David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.